Is It Morally Legitimate to Grow Marijuana to Sell to Medical Companies?

DIFFICULT MORAL QUESTIONS: To determine whether or not you should do so, you have to get clear on all the bad side effects of your contemplated action.

PHOTO: A worker holds a young cannabis clone plant inside the cloning room in this photo taken at the NYSK Holdings cannabis growing facility in Skopje, North Macedonia, on Aug. 15, 2019.
PHOTO: A worker holds a young cannabis clone plant inside the cloning room in this photo taken at the NYSK Holdings cannabis growing facility in Skopje, North Macedonia, on Aug. 15, 2019. (photo: Konstantinos Tsakalidis / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Q. My family and I live in Mississippi, where the use of medical marijuana was recently voted into law. I have been approached by someone considering starting a business that would grow and sell the drug to medical facilities. Would this be ethical? I know the recreational use of drugs is unethical, but can it be permitted as a medication. Thank you. —Anthony

A. To answer your first question, we need to address your second question of whether drugs that otherwise can be used for immoral purposes may legitimately be used for therapeutic reasons. For if they are morally legitimate to use, then they can be legitimately produced.

Pope Pius XII addressed the question in regard to drugs that are sometimes used by women as contraceptives. He taught that if the same drug is used “on the advice of a doctor” as a remedy for a medical condition, and not for any immoral purpose, then using the drug “is permitted according to the general principles governing acts with a double effect” (Pius XII, Address to the Seventh International Hematologists, Sept. 12, 1958).

The term “double effect” here refers to the fact that our acts frequently cause more than one effect. They cause the effect that we are trying to bring about, referred to in moral theology as the intended effect, intended, that is, as an end or a means; but they also may cause effects that we are not interested in bringing about — effects that fall outside the intention. Even if the latter effects would be wrong for us to try to bring about (wrong to intend), they can sometimes be legitimate to cause unintentionally, as side effects of the good we are trying to achieve.

So if I am a married woman suffering from a medical problem with my menstrual cycle, and my doctor prescribes estrogen pills, which are sometimes used as birth control, but he prescribes them — and I take them — not for contraceptive purposes, but to regulate my cycle, then the fact that taking the pills will render me temporarily sterile need not be morally wrongful. I accept sterility as an acceptable side effect of my rightly intended act of seeking therapeutic healing.

We can apply this to marijuana. Somebody using pot with the intention of getting stoned is doing something wrong, just like the person who drinks alcohol to get inebriated or takes oxycodone to get high. But if a doctor prescribes marijuana or oxycodone to relieve pain or for other therapeutic purposes, then the drugs may be licit to use, presuming that the users do not intend the altered consciousness, but rather the good therapeutic effect. 

If using the drugs can be licit in proper context, so too can producing and distributing the drugs for licit use. 

But to say these can be licit, does not mean they are licit for you to engage in. There is another important moral principle that needs to be assessed before you can conclude that growing and distributing pot would be morally legitimate. The “double effect” reasoning referred to above also prescribes that you have sufficiently strong reasons to tolerate the bad side effects that you cause. 

To determine whether or not you have such reasons, you have to get clear on all the bad side effects of your contemplated action. 

Now the inebriation of the patients who use their drugs is not the only bad side effect foreseeable for somebody who grows and distributes medical marijuana. I will point out a few others, and you can probably think of others still. 

Another bad effect is contributing unintentionally to the wrongful use of marijuana. We all know there are unscrupulous clinicians who take advantage of medical marijuana laws to make pot available to people for “recreational” purposes. So anyone wishing ethically to produce and supply marijuana should be solicitous to screen the clinicians and clinics they work with to ensure immoral things are not done with their product. 

In addition, there is the bad effect of placing oneself in morally compromising situations. Because of the temptation to maximize profits, you might feel pressure to supply your product to people who wish to distribute it for non-therapeutic purposes. You might also feel pressure to ally yourself with bad people or organizations involved in the cannabis trade. Moreover, mostly all the states that now permit recreational marijuana use began with medical marijuana laws. It is likely that the constituencies who lobbied for medical marijuana in Mississippi see medical legality as a stepping-stone for the legalization of recreational marijuana. If you establish yourself as a supplier of legal marijuana now, it might be difficult for you to maintain your good intentions if and when recreational marijuana is legalized.

Anyone entering the cannabis trade therefore would need to be sure he is not placing himself in near occasions of sin.

Another bad side effect is scandal. Many marijuana users and those who support the cannabis trade are non-Christians and some are overtly anti-Christian. You are a committed Catholic. By entering into such an endeavor, your example, however upright in its intentions, is likely to have an ambiguous example. Becoming a supplier could give the appearance that you support the drug’s immoral uses — that you’ve gone over, as it were, to the dark side. This ambiguous example could lead others to begin to support the drug’s wrongful uses. This is called giving scandal: when my example causes another to sin.

A further bad side effect is imparting legitimacy to evildoers and evildoing. By entering the cannabis trade, you will be contributing to a wider industry that does a lot of evil, even if you yourself are not intending that evil. The cooperation of good people in such industries can reassure wrongdoers and encourage further wrongdoing; it can give them a mandate to continue doing what they’re doing and even to do worse. 

So before going into cannabis production and distribution, one would have a moral responsibility to publicize the fact that he does not support the drug’s immoral uses, is firmly resolved to participate only insofar as he assists people with real medical needs and has no intention of facilitating the actions of evil people or projects in the wider profession.

A final and perhaps most serious bad side effect is the loss of Christian credibility. The example you give by associating yourself with an industry of this sort might undermine your ability testify to the redemptive love of Jesus: “Who is he to talk to me about Jesus? He’s hardly an example of a committed Christian. After all, he’s a pot grower.” Even if your intentions are pure, the cannabis trade is profoundly tainted. You would need to be sure that by publicly aligning yourself with it, you do not fail in that irrevocable Christian duty to bear perspicuous witness to Christ and the Gospel.

You see how the decision to enter the cannabis trade can have far ranging bad effects, some of which, even if caused unintentionally, should not be tolerated. A Christian considering entering the trade would have to have very strong reasons to undertake such a decision. And even still, he would be obliged to take counter measures to minimize or eliminate these risks.

My advice to you: Before becoming a marijuana grower and distributor, consider other less morally problematic professions that do not risk all these bad side effects.